I am indebted to the blog Mehfil Mein Meri for reminding me that I have long wanted to do a full post about the Vajifdar Sisters. The post that gave me this welcome reminder was Part 2 of a Dance Duets series, focusing on Dances presented as Mujra songs. One of the dances that this post included was the wonderful dance in Mayurpankh (or Mayur Pankh, depending on how we want to type that), featuring Roshan and Khurshid Vajifdar and choreographed by Shirin Vajifdar. As far as I know, this was the only film scene that brought in the talents of all three of these renowned siblings.
A little over a decade ago (just about a decade and two weeks), I posted the same wonderful dance, as one of three Outstanding Songs from Mayur Pankh (1954). Returning to this post after not looking at it for quite a while, I also was reminded of all the interesting comments that I received in response during the next few years. The commenters included not only some of my favorite regular readers of this blog but also a few people who either had been students of one or more of the Vajifdar Sisters or were related to someone who had been a student of theirs. I have to say, I greatly appreciated all of the feedback that I got for this post! But the two most interesting comments came from Jeroo Chavda, the daughter of Khurshid and niece of Roshan and Shirin. In the first of those comments, from May 9, 2011, Jeroo provided a great amount of information regarding the Vajifdar sisters, their training, and their experiences, as well as some added information about this dance and Mayurpankh.
Some of the most interesting bits of information about the Vajifdar Sisters that Jeroo mentioned in this comment – which I saw reiterated in a number of places later – included the fact that merely by pursuing a love of Indian dance, they were breaking away from the conventions of their Parsi community (or “broke the mold,” as Jeroo put it) and that they learned several different forms of classical dance (from very different parts of India) as well as folk dances. (Jeroo added that this was “very unusual for today’s times where the dancer only trains extensively in 1 or 2 styles.” Maybe it was a little more common back in their time? Even if it was, it is still impressive.)
In a subsequent comment a month later, Jeroo added a few interesting details that her mother had related about the film shoot – such as the fact that the conditions were “appalling” and “extremely exhausting” for the supporting actors, adding, “and that’s one of the main reasons that Khurshid, Shirin and Roshan didn’t accept other film roles that were offered after the success of this movie.” It was amusing to read that this scene was so unpleasant for the performers, considering that it was so pleasurable to view. The two Vajifdar sisters danced with great agility and grace while wearing the most beautiful costumes (something that they also were known for outside of the film world), and their dance was complemented by one of the most charming duets by Lata and Asha Mangeshkar, with music composed by Shankar Jaikishan. For the music as well as the dance, this is my favorite mujra-based duet from the Golden Age.
It’s a shame that the Vajifdar Sisters never accepted any film roles after Mayurpankh. I do know, though, of at least one other film dance that was performed by a Vajifdar Sister earlier, in the 1952 film Nau Bahar. I found that one and posted it on this blog in the summer of 2013. But I didn’t even realize the identity of the dancer when I posted it; I had selected that dance simply because it was one of Five Favorite Dances to the Voice of Rajkumari. Then, within a couple of days, I was informed in a comment by “Minai Minai” (aka Cassidy or Cassidy Minai) from the blog Cinema Nritya that the dancer was, indeed, Roshan Vajifdar, performing a dance that had been choreographed by Shirin. And, of course, the dance is marvelous. Although it is mostly classically based, one cannot trace it to any specific classical tradition (nor, certainly, can you just call it a “mujra”). As Cassidy/Minai also pointed out, this scene consisted of “such an unusual South-North hybrid dance and setting.” (I think it is in this dance – as opposed to the somewhat more straightforward, Kathak-influenced mujra in Mayurpankh – where you can get a good sense of the diversity in the Vajifdar Sisters’ dance background. But in an article about Roshan Vajifdar that I discovered in a July 2012 issue of The Hindu, it was made clear that Roshan Vajifdar most loved Bharatanatyam, which became her true specialty.) I should add here that the music for this dance is beautiful, too, since it was composed by a certain music director who also happened to be named Roshan.
Through scattered readings about the Vajifdar Sisters, I learned that while they were all wonderfully talented, both Roshan and Khurshid owed much of their initial success to Shirin. It was Shirin who had first started learning the traditions of Indian classical dance and who in turn trained the others to do the same. Thus, it makes perfect sense that Roshan and Khurshid depended on Shirin for their costume designs and choreography.
A little while after I had started writing this post, I decided to look for more information about Shirin, and that’s when I found some of her obituaries. Sadly, Shirin died on September 29, 2017. (Strangely enough, it was just a coincidence that I had started writing this post on her third death anniversary.) Among the obituaries that I saw in my searches, the most memorable one was the tribute that I found at Narthaki, written by a well-known dance critic and scholar, Dr. Sunil Kothari. Right near the beginning of his article, Dr. Kothari makes clear not only that Shirin was the Vajifdar who led all of the sisters on the journey into classical Indian dance, but that she also did so against a good amount of adversity. It was very amusing to read this paragraph summarizing how difficult that mission was at the beginning:
Facing opposition from the Parsi community for taking to classical dancing, Shirin continued to dance and trained her younger sisters. They used to perform together in Mumbai on many occasions. Shirin used to tell me that they were often threatened by her Parsi community that they would disturb their performances by throwing eggs and stones! But she was not afraid and did not care. There were others who supported her.
Later in the article, Dr. Kothari mentions some of the successes of Shirin and the other Vajifdar Sisters as well as saying a lot of glowing things about how Shirin conducted herself as a person. But Jeroo Chavda actually was the one who, in her first comment to me, gave me the best idea about the heights to which these sisters managed to climb (a while after their somewhat rough beginnings):
They were invited to perform before many heads of states for e.g. Shah of Iran with his first wife Soraiya and Jawaharlal Nehru. Also gave many shows on the ship Battori on which they sailed to London. They performed extensively in India and Mumbai in the Sea Greens hotel, Taj Mahal Hotel, Eros and Regal theatres. Shirin also gave many lectures/demonstrations in Haryana and Punjab universities.
I would like to think that the Vajifdar Sisters remain sufficiently well-known and appreciated in the present day. It seems that they still are significant to people who know the history of Indian classical dance, but I wish the Sisters had been more willing to withstand the unpleasantness of film production in order to make more appearances in that medium. I also wish the dance they did in Mayurpankh could be more available in videos – that is, in other versions and in different places. (Beautiful though their dance in Mayurpankh is, that clip could be better technically. Since the other clip in this post comes from Tom Daniel aka Tommydan, it doesn’t have those technical problems.) Nonetheless, the little bit that I saw did make me a fan of theirs, and the things that I read made me admire them even more. I hope that at least a few people out there agree with me. I would love to find more blog posts that mention the Vajifdar Sisters and more people who are interested in preserving their legacy.
Thank you for a very interesting post, Richard. I hadn’t known about the Vajifdars. Now I want to go watch Mayurpankh!
Thanks a lot Richard for this informative post on Vajifdar sisters.
And also thanks for linking my post here.
Madhu, you are welcome. I am very happy to see that I have introduced you to the Vajifdar Sisters! Regarding Mayurpankh, so far, I have never watched the whole film; I’ve merely watched several songs or dances from it – but as you can see, those made an impression on me. :)
I see that there are a couple of copies of the film on YouTube, but the quality of the videos certainly leaves something to be desired, and I would also rather find a copy with English subtitles (of course), which these don’t have.
I hope that you do watch the film and write it up for us!
Anup, you are welcome. As I mentioned, it is thanks to your post (and our subsequent exchange in comments) that I realized I wanted to write about the Vajifdar Sisters extensively this time.
That was a good thing because, although I had a few ideas in my head regarding what I could write about for my September post, none of those other ideas inspired me enough.
Of course, this turned out not to be a September post, but a post about the Vajifdar Sisters should not be rushed. :)
This post is absolutely brilliant. I have to admit I was not aware of Vajifdar sisters, though I had heard their songs. I went through your earlier post, too, on them and all the comments, including that of Jeroo, daughter of Khurshid Vajifdar.
Their story tells the harsher side of the film industry, for the ‘minor’ actors. In their case the societal pressure was another big deterrent. Plus they had options, and I am not very surprised they chose to leave, though we would have wished to see more of them.
I think breaking the mould was easier for Saraswat Devi (Khurshid Minocher-Homji), because the profession she chose was ‘respectable’, the physical hassles were less, and she achieved enormous success with Bombay Talkies.
AK, I am delighted that you like this post so much! I also found it fascinating to learn all those details about the Vajifdar Sisters and their past. The recollection that Jeroo Chavda conveyed about the “appalling conditions” endured by minor actors certainly was interesting – we seldom, if ever, hear about that sort of thing.
Your mention of Saraswati Devi encouraged me to look into her history a little. Either I did not know – or had forgotten – that she was also a Parsi who had to overcome some resistance from within that community.
I guess it was easier for her to overcome those obstacles, but per the entry in Wikipedia, it does not seem as though she was that well appreciated by her colleagues in the film industry later on:
She never married and lived alone in her apartment. One day she fell down from a bus and fractured her hip bone. None of the film personalities ever came for her help. The only help she got was from her neighbours.
Unfortunately, as we know (and have discussed in other conversations), that sort of ending was not unique among people who once thrived in the Hindi film industry of the Vintage Era and/or the Golden Age.
Sadly, I learned that Roshan Vajifdar (Ghosh) died on December 17, 2020.
In the January 1, 2021 issue of the Deacon Herald, I found a good article commemorating her, “The muse of Roerich” (referring to the Russian artist Svetoslav Nikolaevich Roerich and the paintings that he did of her).